Celebrated artist Arpana Caur talks about the deep connect between art and realism at her Chennai show

Arpana Caur has just been transported from a pleasant New Delhi to a hot Chennai on a sultry afternoon. Her simple white kurta has been squirted liberally with yellow colour while she was struggling to get her interactive installation just right at Gallery Veda. And as we begin this interview, there’s a power cut.

But the celebrated artist remains calm, handling it all with trademark grace and simplicity. A minor breakthrough on the installation earns the young artist who helped her liberal praise (“you’re a genius!”), the heat is resolved by sitting out on the terrace with chai, and the kurta, well, that’s just written off as one the joys of “old-fashioned painting”.

“There’s a sensuous pleasure in the weight of the paint when you lay it on the brush, just as there’s a pleasure in being splashed with colour, even if you know you’ll never be able to wear the dress again,” she says, looking down at her kurta ruefully. “Nowadays, I feel that old-fashioned oil paintings are increasingly being replaced by new media, graphics and installations, but they’re just as valid as those other forms.”

Infusing life into this art form was the inspiration behind her new exhibition in Chennai, provocatively titled ‘Painting is not dead’. The show is her first in Chennai in 25 years, and her first solo show in a long time.

“When I came in 1988, there was hardly an art market in Chennai; the show was mostly an excuse to visit Mahabalipuram,” says the 59-year-old with a smile. That previous trip’s legacy can still be seen in her works today, in the yogis and yoginis standing on one foot doing penance, inspired by Arjuna’s Penance relief.

Her travels over the years have taken her from the temples of Thanjavur to the monasteries of Leh, from caves in Sri Lanka to holy sites in Jerusalem, and she draws inspiration from their ancient folk art and spiritual traditions. “There is so much richness and colour in tradition and myth; it’s a well one can keep drawing from,” she says.

Collection for Chennai

This collection in Chennai is a microcosm, in a sense, of Arpana’s works over the last two decades (“I thought, let me have bits and pieces of all I’ve done in the last 25 years”), with many paintings having been done specially for this exhibition. You have, for instance, her famous ‘thread of life’ series about the passage of time, with the scissor as a recurring metaphorical motif (“my husband is quite sick of scissors — I’ve been drawing them for 15 years!”); you have the meditative abstract figuratives featuring Kabir, Buddha, Sikh mystics and yogis. Graceful figures — usually female — flow against vast oil canvases filled with bold yellows, reds, blacks and mystical blues. Powerful symbols of bones (a new motif used in this show) and swords talk of the violence and inequalities of our world, and broken-backed figures of labourers and starving children speak of the cruelty of poverty. A graduate in literature, Arpana has, since the start of her art career in the 1970s, been speaking out on such themes through her paintings, whether it was the 1984 Sikh riots or the “atrocious condition’ of the widows of Vrindavan. It was only natural, then, that she was moved to create an installation depicting the horror of the recent gang rape in Delhi, which was shown in both Delhi and Kochi this year. “The first time I painted rape was 33 years ago, about the Maya Tyagi case,” she says. “It was exhibited at my first solo show and bought by M.F. Husain.”

Her public art — done in places as varied as Bangalore, Kathmandu and Hamburg, and in most cases for little or no money — is as famous as her oils. “Very few people go to galleries,” she says. “Nehru said that one per cent of public buildings should have art, but that remained on paper.”

But what makes her truly happy is knowing that her paintings are housed in 12 museum collections all around the world. “I’m crazy about museum collections!” she says. “They ensure that your work outlives you.”

Arpana Caur’s legacy will most certainly outlive her — not just her remarkable art work, but her charity work as well, such as the vocational training institute for women she and her mother run, funded entirely with what she earns from her paintings. “Thankfully good times have come for artists in the last 10 to 15 years, so we manage,” she says with a smile.

The exhibition at Gallery Veda is on until May 8.